Covid-19 stalks vaccine rollout as some fall ill after getting jab

04 July 2021 - 00:00 By claire keeton
Dr Jenny Pheiffer-Coetzee when she was still in good health - now she has long Covid and riding is impossible.
Dr Jenny Pheiffer-Coetzee when she was still in good health - now she has long Covid and riding is impossible.
Image: Supplied

Don't mistake Covid symptoms for vaccine side-effects.

That's the warning from Johannesburg medical researcher Dr Jenny Pheiffer-Coetzee, who started feeling fatigue the day before her vaccination.

Thinking she was tired from working long hours, and that other symptoms were side-effects from the jab, she never sought treatment. Now she has severe long-term Covid.

Chronic asthma, extreme joint pain and brain fog are among the conditions she confronts every day. "I struggle to find words.

"My husband had a pen on the desk, and I said to him please give me that . that thing you write with," she said.

Soaring infection rates - on Friday, 24,270, the highest number in SA - could mean people already have Covid, without realising it, when they bare their arms for vaccine shots. They might then dismiss their symptoms as passing side-effects, and delay seeing a doctor.

Pheiffer-Coetzee got her shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on February 26 as part of the Sisonke study for which she was working. She assumed working 16 hours a day was the reason for her fatigue.

From day one of the Sisonke launch at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Pheiffer-Coetzee stepped in to support one of the researchers leading the programme, Dr Erica Lazarus.

"For two weeks I was on site, working very long days," said Pheiffer-Coetzee.

When she received her jab, "I felt a cold shiver on my back . and ran out to take a conference call," she said.

By lunchtime she wasn't feeling great. Then she was overcome by intense nausea and Lazarus sent her home.

"That night I started running fevers for five days and could not get them under control. The whole time I thought it could be a reaction to the vaccine," said Pheiffer-Coetzee, who in hindsight can't believe her mistake. Any side effects are typically mild.

"On Saturday I had a horse show and I went [to compete]. In five minutes, I was gasping for breath and could not go on.

"By Sunday my chest was tight. I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest, but I was not checking my oxygen levels because I had been vaccinated."

By Wednesday, the fevers and shaking were subsiding, but Pheiffer-Coetzee had extreme joint pain. She went to a GP but told him she thought her symptoms were a reaction to the vaccine - and did not get tested for Covid.

"Six weeks later I was talking to Glenda when she was asking how the team was feeling," Pheiffer-Coetzee said, referring to professor Glenda Gray, co-principal investigator for the Sisonke study.

Gray said her symptoms were nothing like what others had experienced after getting a shot, and raised the possibility she had Covid. An antibody test confirmed it.

Pheiffer-Coetzee also suffers from fuzzy vision and a tremor in her arm, and her right hand shakes. "I can't balance a cup of tea, it is scary," she said.

She has consulted six specialists about her lungs, stomach, brain, eyes and joints but "nobody knows what to do".

"I still have headaches which won't go away, tiredness which won't go away and stomach issues which flare up. I used to ride cross-country, which is like a triathlon on horseback, but I can't ride any more. I struggle to put on tack, my heart rate goes up high and I'm exhausted."

If a person gets Covid four weeks or more after being vaccinated, it is categorised as a "breakthrough infection".

Someone who falls into this category is Dr Nomathemba Chandiwana, a research clinician who was vaccinated about four months ago on February 18. Chandiwana said she began feeling sick on Thursday last week. On Monday she tested positive.

"I had a runny nose and an irritating, persistent cough. It felt like a bad cold. I had some tightness of my chest, and that was scary," she said.

"I live in Parktown in Johannesburg, within walking distance of seven hospitals, and by Sunday night they were all full."

Pheiffer-Coetzee, whose husband and teenage offspring have not had Covid, said: "I'm petrified of the Delta variant. There are no words to say how I feel. Do not underestimate Covid."


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